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A STORY ABOUT A REAL MAN                                                                   315
After his achievement that day he could speak to her
as an equal. He was not only flying, but fighting. Had he
not pledged himself to tell her everything either when
his hopes had definitely collapsed or when he had become
the equal of others in battle? He had now achieved
his object. The two planes that he*had shot down fell
into the scrub and burned there in sight of all. The
officer of the day had recorded this in the wing log, and
the report had gone to Divisional and Army Headquar-
ters, and to Moscow.
All this was true. He had fulfilled his pledge and he
could now write. But when you come to think of it, was
a "Stuka" a worthy foe for a fighter plane? A really good
hunter would not claim in proof of his skill that he had
shot, say, a hare, would he?
The humid night grew darker in the wood. Now that
the thunder of battle had receded southward and the
glare of the now distant conflagrations was barely visible
through the network of tree branches, all the night
sounds of the fragrant, luxuriant summer wood could be
distinctly heard—the frenzied rasping of the grasshop-
pers in the glades, the guttural croaking of hundreds of
frogs in the bog near by, the shrill cry of a corn-crake,
and high above all this, the singing of the nightingales
that reigned in the damp semi-darkness.
Alexei was still sitting under the birch-tree on the soft
but now dewy moss while patches of moonlight inter-
spersed with black shadows crept along the grass at his
feet. Again he drew the photograph from his pocket,
placed it on his knee, and gazing at it in the light of
the moon, he became lost in thought. One after another,
small, dark silhouettes of night bombers sped southward
overhead in the clear, dark-blue sky. Their engines droned
in a low, bass key, but even this voice of war now
sounded in the moonlit wood that rang with the singing
of the nightingales like the peaceful buzzing of cockchaf-
ers. Alexei sighed, put the photograph back into his tunic
pocket and, springing to his feet, shook himself to throw
off the enchantment of that night. Rustling the dry twigs
on the ground, he quickly descended into the dugout
where, stretched like a giant on his narrow soldier's
couch,.Petrov was sound asleep and snoring lustily,.